From a distance, the long low walls of the Waikiki Natatorium still look impressive. They enclose bleachers overlooking a large salt-water pool that was built as a living memorial to those from Hawaii who served and died in World War I.
A closer inspection reveals that the sea wall is cracked and how poses a hazard. The City fears that the parts of the wall might fall into the sea and injure swimmers. Beginning Monday, mitigation work will remove cracked concrete from the pool perimeter. The work will require temporary scaffolding and buoys will be placed 20 feet out to keep swimmers and beach goers from the work area.
This mitigation work is far from restoration, however, as the once-impressive monument continues to deteriorate. The natatorium is a silent victim of noisy disagreements about whether it should be restored or demolished. There was noise of a different sort when it opened on August 24, 1927 – the birthday of Duke Kahanamoku. The Olympic Gold Medalist and godfather of modern surfing took the first ceremonial pe and swim before a cheering, capacity crowd.
The natatorium hosted other famous swimmers, including Esther Williams, Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weismuller. According to the natatorium.org website, the natatorium was used by the Department of Education for a mandatory Learn to Swim Program, and Hawaii’s last Olympic swimmer learned to swim there. But it was closed in 1979 due to lack of upkeep. The last money spent on capital maintenance had been in 1949. Twenty years later, plans were drawn to restore the memorial with a completely re-engineered pool. The plans were approved and funded by the City and County of Honolulu. But protests derailed the project in 2001. A 2009 task force recommended that the pool and bleachers be demolished and removed but the arches be kept. This would open up more beachfront for use by the public.
The beautiful gateway arch to the natatorium recently appeared in Hawaii Five-0 as part of an aerial scene. It still looks great from the air, and is visible below Diamond Head from the waters off Waikiki. But you won’t be able to get a close look at this “living memorial” in what may be its final days.
Posted by: Bruce Fisher